Vietnam Part II: Rural Life
Tawny’s elderly great grand uncle offered a thin, kind smile as the Toyota Camry we had all crammed into bumped and wiggled into his half dirt, half-paved driveway. He raised his arm in a motionless wave and broadened his grin, nodded slightly. He wore a mop of short, thick white hair.
My future mother-in-law leapt from the car, ducked below a tree of hanging coconuts, and walked up to peck his cheek; my fiancee bowed and offered a polite greeting in Vietnamese. I knew it was polite by the softened deference in her tone. Tawny is always polite to her elders. Soon the three of them, plus Tawny’s uncle who had driven us out into the remote town, were conversing excitedly in the language I’ve heard so often but still understand so little. The older uncle appeared of the land, whereas the uncle who had driven us out to the village in the four-door sedan (a luxury purchase in Vietnam) appeared cosmopolitan, perhaps even a bit chic.
The elder relative next turned to me, extended his hand and declared in near-perfect English, “How are you? Pleased to meet you. Please make yourself at home.”
Surprised, I stammered out my own greeting with far less proficiency than him. Aside from conversations with Tawny, these were the first full sentences I had heard in English in over two weeks.
Sensing my confusion, he smiled again and said, “I lived in West Virginia for awhile and moved back just a few years ago.”
Tawny’s younger uncle, the one with the Toyota and the designer jeans, simply stood in silence and watched us chittering in a language of which he had no understanding.
For the next hour, the great grand uncle hurried excitedly around his large property. He took us down a careening jungle path to the family’s burial grounds so that Tawny and her mother could pay their respects to their ancestors. I stood back quietly as they lit incense, bowed three times before several large tombs, and chanted something undecipherable.
Her uncle hung laundry, lit fires for our luncheon, and lopped several coconuts off of trees on his property before offering us all glasses of ice-cold coconut water. He kept his hands animated, his grin steady, and his laugh infectious. A tiny puppy — one he had apparently adopted only recently for some of his younger relatives — trailed him, scampering around the open property with that clumsy confidence so familiar to pups.
At one point, acknowledging how difficult it must be to not understand the conversations surrounding me, he gestured to a hammock hanging in his living room and invited me to lie down.
“The breeze comes through,” he said. “You. Lie down. Rest.” He handed me a glass of the homemade coconut water.
This 80 year-old had a sincere appreciation for life.
As we drove away after lunch, I assumed that that would be the last time I spoke with this lively and charming man.
Little did I know I would see him only five months later in a California hospital, fighting for his life.
Most tourists who travel to Vietnam will visit either Saigon or Hanoi and possibly several of the more touristy destinations (e.g., Hoi An, Nha Trang, Dalat). Far fewer, however, will get the opportunity to spend any considerable time in less renowned villages and towns.
This is unfortunate, as a peek into village life offers a glimpse into how the other half of the population is navigating the developing country’s breakneck push into the 21st century. The well-traveled spots (both metropolis and resort towns alike) offer pronounced visions of the country’s past and present — with constant cyber interconnectedness and social media frenzy propped up against a backdrop of Dickensian alleys teeming with steam, rats, and scampering livestock.
The villages we visited certainly featured some of this glaring mash-up abundant elsewhere in the country, but the contrast was less distinct and more blurred, as if the anachronistic elements have been allowed ample time to bleed and soak into one another rather than clash in noticeably jarring opposition. Paved roads blend into dirt roads which blend back into asphalt a few hundred feet further. Estates are expanded generationally, with relatives pitching in to patch new pieces of home on to existing foundations.
It’s a work in constant, but not rushed progress: living communities of raw, organic materials, cobbled together with a few well-tended bits of artifice.
Even the dead contribute to the cobbling: In the villages, most ancestors are buried either immediately behind the homes, or in small private cemeteries consisting solely of one’s own relatives.
Entrances on all sides of the large homes and rickety shacks alike remain open throughout the day and usually well into the evening, allowing non-stop flow of air and light to sift between the outside and inside worlds.
We made two trips to my future mother-in-law’s birth village. Visiting their great grand uncle actually occurred on the second visit, though his property was less than 30 yards from the first family we had come to visit. A week before we had gone out to celebrate Tawny’s great-great grandmother’s birthday. She had passed away some time ago, but that didn’t prevent family from coming together to reminisce, dine and drink. At one point a man pulled out an instrument reminiscent of a guitar and began strumming softly.
As folks were finishing their meals — the elders were drinking rice wine and toasting regularly (“cheers” is replaced with “yo!” in Vietnamese) while the children were scampering along the creek chasing ducks. Several thimble-sized glasses of rice wine were shoved in my hands by uncles already red-faced from alcohol and the humidity. I clinked glasses, shouted “yo,” and grinned sheepishly for photos. Soon, Tawny grabbed my hand and announced to her mom that we were going exploring.
We followed a concrete trail that snaked behind several homes before arriving at a locked gate that protected the family cemetery. In the short walk I noted bananas hanging from trees, as well as coconuts the size of my head, dragonfruit, and papaya. We passed ponds where kids sat in tank tops and shorts casting fishing lines into what appeared to be great depths (but couldn’t have really been much deeper than 10 feet). Chickens, ducks, and pet dogs scampered out of our way; butterflies and dragonflies zipped haphazardly past our faces. In the distance, water buffalo hauled farmers on the backs of carts. One household had a group of pot bellied pigs sun bathing on the private drive.
While there are a few other climates in Vietnam (more on that in the next column), most of the villages we visited could be described as tropical. The moisture is everywhere — in fishing ponds, creeks, even the air itself — keeping the scenery a lush, vibrant green.
We visited several other villages and lesser-known towns during our three weeks in Vietnam. At each stop, Tawny’s mom arrived fully equipped with candies for little nieces and nephews, as well as small gifts for her own cousins, aunts, and uncles. She distributed designer soaps and perfumes from the U.S. to many of the women, who beamed, grabbed her hands in gratitude, and offered return gifts of homemade sweets.
Hospitality was rampant. At each stop, as had occurred in Saigon, relatives monitored my food bowl with a ferocity that would make the NSA proud, and took it on themselves to refill it the very moment — and I’m not making this up — I emptied it again. Needless to say, it was quite difficult to go hungry.
The last time we left her mom’s childhood village I noticed a bit more of the road had been cobbled with asphalt. The work hadn’t been done with heavy-duty machinery, of course, but, like most things in the village, had been patched together by laborers sweating under the tropical sun.
Asphalt was bleeding into the village.
CALIFORNIA: May 18, 2015
Tawny and I were married in Irvine, California the day before (on May 17) but one notable guest was absent: Tawny’s great grand uncle. Unbeknownst to me (much gets lost in translation, especially when things get hectic), that energetic man with the mop of white hair had flown in several days prior to attend our wedding.
Two nights before our nuptials he awoke feeling dizzy and complaining of disorientation. He collapsed onto a tile floor. Several hours after this he began losing sensation in his extremities. He was rushed to an emergency room at Fountain Valley Regional Hospital, a facility bordering the heavily populated Vietnamese community of Garden Grove (unofficially named “Little Saigon”). They did several major work-ups and noticed elevations of particular heart and liver enzymes that may have been responsible for the initial dizziness.
They also conducted an MRI which revealed something that made all of our hearts fall: a fracture in the spinal cord.
He was rushed into surgery to prevent paralysis from quickly spreading. With any further delays, he would likely have been paralyzed from the neck down.
We visited him less than 24 hours after the surgery. He lay motionless in the ICU as we walked past the dividing curtain, his eyes moist with tears. A neck brace framed his head; tubes shot into his arm, nose, chest. Tawny pecked his cheek. I offered my hand, which he took before whispering something I couldn’t quite make out. The two spoke in Vietnamese.
I left the make-shift room. Only two visitors were permitted at a time and Tawny needed to speak with the doctor while translating care instructions for her mother. Anxiously, I retreated to the hall.
“The doctors think he probably won’t walk again,” Tawny said at one point after she had met me out in the hallway. She had spoken briefly with the doctor while her mom had been busy chatting with their uncle.
“Oh my God,” I said, uncertain of what else to say, though this felt absurdly insufficient. “What is he thinking? How does he feel about this?”
“I don’t think he knows,” she answered slowly. “I don’t think they’ve told him yet.”
She trailed off.
But I knew.
It didn’t matter that he had entered his eighth decade. It didn’t matter that he had seen more in two hemispheres, in bustling cities and quiet villages, in violent warfare and in quiet peace than nearly every person I’ve met. This man was so full of life that anything that weakened his ability to indulge in it fully was going to be devastatingly soul-crushing.
We saw him again a week later. He had been moved to a private room and he was sleeping when we came in. Tawny nudged him softly but he was unconscious, possibly sedated.
I peered out his first-floor window and stared at the nondescript asphalt parking lot. Clouds darkened the southern California skies and I suddenly found myself wishing I could open the window to let the breeze in.
After only a few moments we left.
We returned home where I pet our own dogs and took a walk through our quiet, suburban neighborhood. That evening I laid down on the couch, a glass of wine in hand. I lifted it slightly into the air and whispered, somberly, “yo.”